Early last year, 18 foreign nationals (from the US, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Australia) were detained in Rangoon after they were caught leafleting documents calling for the end of the current military regime. We came from all walks of life. A 19-year-old American college kid. A 51-year-old seasoned human-rights activist. A journalist who knows more about writing than direct activism.
We lived together 24-hours-a-day in an office six by eight metres. The guards brought us food and cigarettes. They accompanied us to the toilet, our only excursions.
Once in a while they came in to interrogate us. At night they draped themselves on chairs and tables, while we slept on mattresses under mosquito nets. On the third day we got braver: will you get us biryani rice from this shop at Sule Pagoda Road? We’ll pay. To our delight, they did. The hard looks and indifference melted. Our smiles became genuine.
We had a constant attendant – a spy, you could say – who watched our every move, was present at every interrogation, who would not tell us what was going on, or would only tell us lies.
‘How long will be kept here?’ we asked.
‘How long? Forever?’
Once I said: ‘Don’t ask him anything. He only tells lies.’ I noticed a sting of hurt in his eyes. He didn’t hide very well. Neither did the others. Neither did I.
After being held for six days we were deported. I came home with a knot in my chest that wouldn’t go away. We came home heroes, but I did not feel jubilant and triumphant. I was ashamed, not for what I did, but because I really didn’t want to see my captors as people. I wanted to come home and condemn the junta with authoritative vigour.
I can mock their ignorance – my captors who are part of the junta, who work nine-to-five jobs and go home to their families and TV sets. Small pieces in a monstrous structure that is responsible for more than 10,000 of its people fighting for democracy in exile; for arbitrary arrests, tortures and deaths of elected representatives and activists; for the butchery and rapes of ethnic minorities and for the 120,000 refugees languishing on the borders of Thailand.
But I come home and I still think of them. Richard, our interrogator with a big pot belly: was he responsible? Richard, who shouted at me for not co-operating; whom we taught how to play cards; who patiently listened and translated into Burmese for his other colleagues; who passed his cards to his friend while he ran to answer a phone call; who promised to teach us a Burmese card game before we left.
Or how about the woman attendant who insisted on standing and watching me bathe? When I looked into her eyes, she was as naked as I was.
What about the guard we affectionately called the flower boy, who would go outdoors to pick flowers for our hair? ‘Which do you want?’ ‘The yellow ones.’ We made our choice peering out from the windows of our prison.
Or was Khin Maung, the judge responsible? His dedication to his job was admirable. Eight hours of sitting in his big, hard chair, listening patiently to statements from police officers and witnesses. He sentenced us to five years in Insein Prison, only for it to be overturned moments later by the Foreign Affairs Ministry. We were pardoned and deported.
The Americans see us as gallant heroes, taking on a military regime. I feel I do not fit there. Neither do I deserve the Malaysian Government’s condemnation of our actions and labelling us as troublemakers and lawbreakers. We went there to do a good thing for a forgotten people, and we took risks to do our best.
I will continue to fight for the rights of the oppressed under the military rule of Burma. I will write articles, compile updates, research and lobby. But during these six days I discovered humanity behind the villain’s mask. In Burma, of course, the actors carry guns. Total evil is a clear target, a defined red bull’s-eye in the centre of a white circle. In a Burmese prison, I found that the paint was mixed to a solid pink, bad inseparable from good. Humans, like me.
Reprinted with permission from Amida magazine Vol 4, No 4.
Amida LPO Box A214, Australian National University, ACT 2600, Australia.
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